Guilt, Shame and the Moral Big Bang

Why do we have moral, self-judging emotions?

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Alone among animals, humans have access to an immediate, first-hand emotional perception of the “wrongness” of actions or agency of the self, experienced as a sense of guilt or shame. We are inherently wired to have a feeling of guilt when we imagine that our actions have hurt someone.  Studies show that children express guilty feelings by the age of 3, before they are capable of any sophisticated moral reasoning. Shame, on the other hand, is a wordless, shrinking sense of the self as bad, unworthy, deficient or inadequate, unrelated to a specific action.  Like guilt, the experience of the shame emotion arises early in childhood.  When a child begins to feel shame, he or she has eaten of the tree of knowledge of what is wrong.  This is crucial to becoming human.  

These emotions enable us to experience a sense of moral wrongness in private, subjective mental courtrooms convened when “oughts” have been defied, or “should nots” transgressed. Hauled before our consciences, inward-pointing fingers of blame and painful responsibility for infliction of suffering are imagined and felt.  These capacities anchor our brains and minds to a moral reality to which all other animals seem blind.  While animals undoubtedly experience versions of fear, anger, love and sadness, they seem quite immune to “beating themselves up.”  When we practice meditation or mindfulness we notice that our very stream of consciousness, fraught with self-doubts, apprehensions, memories or fantasies of failure, worries about the welfare of people we imagine we are responsible for harming or failing to protect, is fundamentally informed and shaped by our shameful and guilty senses.  Our minds seem designed continually to ask questions like, “have I harmed anyone?” and “am I good or bad?”  Humans swim in a sea of moral awareness and associated choices that only we can see.  Shame and guilt are to morality as sight is to vision.

A Moral Big Bang

The biggest, most revolutionary  idea in the history of the universe was the notion that something could be morally “wrong.” On a cosmological timescale, this awareness was recent.  The estimate of the age of the material universe, as reckoned by the time since the Big Bang, is 13.7 billion years.  For most of that time, there were no beings (that we know of) possessed of self-judging brain modules informed by the experience of a moral sense.  Only several hundreds of thousands of years ago, modern human beings came on this (blank) moral scene.

Because of our capacities for self-judgment, we became the beings that make moral choices.  Subject to emotions signaling transgression of inchoate, instinctual moral values, human choices became uniquely significant. A moral choice is best understood as a choice that you feel you can be blamed for, or an action you realize has the capacity to harm someone else. Zebras, bears. sharks and bacteria do not make such choices.  With the evolution of humans, granted this direct contact with the moral dimension, a new universe, perceived by a consciousness informed by moral sensibility, sprang into being.  In this way, human capacities for shame and guilt can be said to have ushered a Moral Big Bang, starting the clock on a universe containing the possibility of moral choices.  It seems to me difficult to argue (though as we will see below, some do) that a moral reality existed prior to the evolution of human beings.  What would right or wrong mean, even as abstract principles, without humans?

Evolutionary Psychology on Shame and Guilt

Why do we have emotions of shame and guilt?  If understanding the origins and nature of consciousness is the “hard problem” in neuroscience, then the evolutionary “reasons” for the development of shame and guilt in humans seems a similar obstacle for evolutionary psychology.  The field of evolutionary psychology seeks to explain human psychological traits and phenomena, including aspects of consciousness and emotion, as the results of a blind process of adaptation; those aspects of mind and behavior that resulted in successfully projecting genes into successive generations, the reasoning goes, reaped the reward of becoming installed in human nature.  Since Darwin, biological science has limited itself to consideration only of materialist, reductionist explanations; the idea that explanations of human behavior can be generated solely by reference to accidental but fortuitous evolution of properties of the known material universe has thus firmly taken hold. 

There are, of course, dissenters to this position.  In addition to proponents of intelligent design (Axe, 2017) who argue that aspects of human evolution can only be explained by the efforts of a God-like intelligent designer, we have a philosopher like Thomas Nagel (2012) who, while an atheist, believes that reductionist, materialist explanations will necessarily prove insufficient to comprehend the extraordinary complexity and mystery of nature and consciousness.  My own thoughts about these questions arose during my decades of practice and scholarship as a clinical psychologist, with a particular interest in the “self-conscious” emotions of shame and guilt.

It seemed to me that the evolutionary psychological explanations for the existence of our moral emotions (generally invoking their presumed adaptive value in promoting cooperation among human populations) were inadequate.  

First of all, many animals, including insects, cooperate perfectly well without any moral sense. Furthermore, one could argue that human societal cooperation, if it has flourished at all, has done so mainly since relatively recent (post-Enlightenment) progress in the development of advantageous political systems.  The human capacities for shame and guilt long pre-existed these developments. The history of humanity prior (or since) has not necessarily emphasized cooperation or altruism.  To my mind, happy, self-interested psychopaths would have reproduced perfectly well, and my psychotherapy couch would have remained empty.

Is Morality Real?

Nagel is a proponent of Moral Realism, an approach which essentially holds that our consciousness is informed by access to a moral reality as real as rocks or reptiles. The moral realist seems to presume that this reality awaited our ability to apprehend it.  For Nagel, the biological evolutionary process, including the development of consciousness informed by an awareness of moral reality, can be seen as the “universe gradually waking up.”  Accordingly, the subjective nature of consciousness is viewed as the only thing we directly know to be real and cannot be explained by or subordinated to material contrivances.  Obviously, this viewpoint represents a radical shift from prevailing scientific reductionism.

New approaches beg new questions.  What if evolutionary psychology has it backward?  What if conscious creatures with moral awareness were not merely an accidental result of an evolutionary drive toward neurobiological complexity, but a necessary step in the very implementation of a universe that bends toward morality as its fundamental pillar?  From this extraordinary standpoint, the forces that drove this outcome required the development of conscious beings granted the ability to see and act it into existence.  

Could humans as perceivers have been the instruments of creation for a new universe?  Is consciousness, and particularly consciousness of morality, not an incidental product of blind evolution, but the fundamental reality, the point of everything? Hearteningly for me, asking these questions reminds me that when I feel a twinge of guilt at an irrational fantasy of having hurt someone’s feelings, I am not just being neurotic;  I am being allowed a glimpse of a moral universe in which I participate.

References

Axe, D. (2017), Undeniable, How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life is Designed.  Harper Collins, New York,

Nagel, T. (2012).  Mind & Cosmos.  Oxford, New York.